Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nature Poetry

Interesting post by Zach Wells

I have no problem with poets entering all kinds of current political, environmental, cultural issues into their work. There're three main problems with doing so, though:

1) The "message" typically overwhelms the more artful aspects of the verse: rhythm, sound, e.g., and especially subtlety.

2) Following from (1), poetry isn't an excuse to proselytize, or to prove what a generous soul the author possesses. This parallels rather well with my own personal peeve: poets (ironically) flaunting ever-so-quietly their own spiritual sensitivity.

3) If you're gonna speak to complex issues, and climate change certainly fills that sink, then you'd better be intimately aware of all sides of the argument.

Speaking to #1, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Homer wrote well and profoundly on politics, Jeffers and Hughes on the environment. But their poetry sung, and their opinions would have been lost forever, just as quickly as will the article LH links to (I agree with the emotional tenor of Monbiot's column re Alberta's Tar Sands, but from a different perspective altogether), if those views were announced artlessly. Poetry's effects, when good, usually help the reader to ask further and better questions rather than to hammer home a group-solidified opinion.

As for #2, this oratory comes from the secular pulpit. There's a time and place for position-taking essays, and for journalist slant, but again, that's a far call from poetry's richness.

#3 is amply demonstrated by LH's confident but dubious view that "at a moment when people are in fact willing to face the reality of climate change and the urgency and complexity of environmentalism we need to have a variety of complex representations and assertions."

Well, first off, climate change is a given. That's what climate does. The question becomes: how much of it is person-caused, and how much of it is a natural fluctuation, seen and recorded throughout the centuries? Back in 1990, this "urgency"LH wants to express was new and dramatic; lately, much evidence and bureaucratic and scientific revelation has revealed multiple cracks in the "humans are to blame" climate change mantra. But you see what I'm helping to perpetuate here: the great unwashed heave of peopledom love to argue and declaim over the environment, politics, religion; not too many are willing to explore a poem as a poem, though.

This changing of popular views -- shown here in a mere 20 years -- speaks to another danger (#4, actually) in bringing current issues to the writing table. If and when the ideas expressed are shown to be not only outdated, but based on wrong premises, well, then, there goes your "content". If I want to learn more about global warming (oops, I mean climate cooling or climate change) I sure won't leaf through contemporary CanPo to get my info. (Or is this just another chapter in "tribal aesthetics"?) Those poets are more than likely not looking to--as LH would have it-- the "complexity of environmentalism". I've read enough contemporary verse, both here and abroad, to know that, more often than not, sloganeering and sanctimonious declaration substitute for and destroy complexity, nuance, and a concern with language and rhythm and sound.

Again, I greatly admire anyone who can insert important contemporary events into their poetry. But it's extremely difficult, and poets who've shown a lack of talent for composing a simple "I walked down the street today" anecdote would be better off tackling that "project" first before the hard organic shaping of poems on climate change.

I disagree somewhat with Zach's final point on the complicity of poets leaving their carbon footprints all about like a consuming Sasquatch. Just by being born, we have a negative effect on the environment. But I'm not one of those lugubrious haters of "manunkind" who would cheer -- could they see it -- the extinction of homosapiens from gentle Gaia. It's a matter of degree. Yes, I agree that most volumes of contemporary CanPo, including most of those from the "ecological" genre, will be dumpster filler or recycled into reusable bumpaper. But "man does not live by bread alone" is the key, here. We need pine beds and walls, but we also need good books of poetry (emphasis on the adjective). (Besides, hemp isn't just for smoking.)Those good books will often have little to do with contemporary news always in the headlines. Some will be exceptions, though .... I'd hope.

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